I. THE THREE TEXTS OF THE POEM
PIERS THE PLOWMAN exists in three distinct versions. The one usually regarded as earliest, called the A-text, contains (in round numbers) 2,500 lines. The second, called the B-text, is 7,200 lines long; it expands the 2,500 lines of the A-text into 3,200 by inserting numerous lines and passages, and then adds 4,000 lines. The third, called the C-text, is practically the same length as B (about 100 lines longer), but omits, transfers, and inserts lines and passages, and, like B frequently changes the wording. The A-text is divided into a prologue and eleven passus or cantos, the B-text into a prologue and twenty passus, and the C-text, according to Skeat, into twenty-two passus. In the case of the A-version, at least, it is true that the evidence of the MSS indicates that the A-text is in reality two poems: (1) a prologue and eight passus of the Vision concerning Piers the Plowman, and (2) a prologue and two passus of the Life of Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. But since the continuous numbering of the passus is well established in editorial tradition, and also very convenient for reference purposes, it is retained in this edition, though the correct numbering is given at the beginning of each passus as it occurs in the MSS. The so-called "John But" passus does not belong organically with the A-text. It is found, wholly or in part, in only three MSS after passus 11, and is probably spurious. Certainly, the latter portion of it was written by one John But, who tells us that he "made this end."
Each of the three versions exists in seventeen or more MSS (there are twenty-eight C manuscripts, nine of which are partly A or B).
Until recently the A-text was thought to have been composed
about 1362. The poem mentions Edward III’s Norman –wars and the Treaty of
Bretigny of 1360 (3. 174-193). The south west wind on a Saturday at eve (5. 14)
refers to a storm which occurred
The belief that the B-text could be dated approximately 1377 was based mainly on the evidence afforded by the famous passage about the rat-parliament inserted in the prologue, concerning the kitten-heir to the throne. Here the author, as Skeat saw it, had in mind the period between the death of the Black, Prince (June, 1376) and the death of Edward III a year later, when the boy Richard was heir to the throne. This date for B as a whole has been questioned, but present scholarly opinion is divided. Possible dates for various sections of B range from 1370 to 1379 or later.
The C-text cannot be definitely dated. There is an
allusion to contemporary events in 4.210, where the land is said not to love
its king. Skeat takes this to refer to the disorders of 1393, Jusserand to
those of 1397-99, while Manly pointed out that as early as 1386 Parliament
presented to the king a threat to depose him. More recently, Sister Mary
Aquinas Devlin has made a strong case for an earlier date, even suggesting a
time prior to 1381, citing C’s failure to mention the peasants’ revolt (1381)
and other events of this and succeeding years. It is possible that C refers to
the fire at
The Printed Editions
The first printed edition of Piers the
Plowman was one of the 13-text, issued by Robert Crowley in 1550, and
reprinted twice III the same year. In 1561 Owen Rogers issued a reprint of
tions till that of the C-text by T. D. Whitaker in 1813. The B-text was printed 1842 by Thomas Wright. A second and revised edition of this was issued in 1856.
The A-text was first printed in 1867 by W. W. Skeat for the Early English Text Society. In 1869 appeared the B-text, in 1873 the C-text, in 1877 the Notes, and in 1884 the Glossary. The first school text appeared in 1874. It contained the prologue and seven passus of the B-text. Skeat was the editor. The three texts were printed together by Skeat in two volumes in 1886.
Recognition of the Three Texts
We have no evidence that for four hundred
years any reader or critic recognized the existence of more than one version of
the poem. Though students knew many MSS,
Finally, in 1867, Skeat, who during his studies preliminary to publication of his pioneer EETS edition located and examined most of the MSS of all the versions, grouped the MSS into three separate versions and established the familiar arrangement A, B, and C.
A1, and A2
As explained above, the A-text falls into two distinct parts: the first, consisting of prologue and passus 1 through 5, is the Vision concerning Piers the Plowman; the second, passus 9-11,
is the Life of Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. The two parts are separated in some MSS by a colophon reading, "Here ends the vision concerning Piers the Plowman, and here commences the life of Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best, after Wit and Reason." These two parts may be called A1, and A2. There is no evidence that the two parts ever circulated separately, but there is in A, no sign that A2 is to follow, though within A, there is preliminary motivation and preparation for every important event, and considerable skillful use of suspense. No such co-ordination exists between A, and A2. On the other hand, the problems dealt with in A2 follow logically from the ruminations of the dreamer concerning Do-well toward the end of passus 8 (8.127-181).
Contents of A1
A1 falls into three main divisions: (1) an Introduction (prologue and passus 1), (2) the Vision of Lady Meed (passus 2-4), and (3) the Vision of the Confession of Sins and the Search for Truth (passus 5-8). The action may be summarized as follows:
(1) The dreamer sees a tower on a hill, a dungeon
in a dale, and between them a field full of folk—the world—whose vicious
activities are satirically described. (Prologue.) A woman descends from the
tower, tells him that it is the abode of God, or Truth, and that she is
(2) The dreamer inquires about Falsehood, who, she has told him, dwells in the dungeon, and turning to look, he sees Meed (as Bribery, or Graft) about to marry Falsehood. The wedding is stopped by Theology, and the king’s writ of arrest disperses the evil crew about Falsehood. Meed is taken before the king, who attempts to get Conscience to marry her, but on Conscience’s denunciation of her, the king agrees to ask the advice of Reason. Reason comes, catches Meed red-handed in
the exercise of her vice before the king, and the wedding to Conscience is abandoned. (Passus 2-4.)
(3) The dreamer returns to the field full of folk, where Conscience and Repentance preach to sinners, and convert, one by one, the personified Deadly Sins. (Passus 5.) The repentant sinners resolve to start on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Truth, and are directed by Piers the Plowman, who advises them to go by way of the ten commandments and the seven virtues. The pilgrims ask Piers to accompany them, but he replies that first he must finish his work. They begin to assist him, but some of the wasters and idlers soon grow tired. Piers calls in Hunger, who helps keep them at work. (Passus 6-7.) Truth sends Piers a pardon, which applies to all who do well. (Passus 8.) The poem closes with an epilogue in which the dreamer ponders the significance of his dream, and concludes that doing well is superior to indulgence.
Contents of A2
The divisions of A2 are not so clear-cut as those of A1, and the allegorical action, so prominent a feature of A1, is conspicuously absent in A2. The dreamer wanders in search of Do-well. He questions two friars about Do-well, but is not satisfied with their reply and leaves them. He stops by a woodside to hear the birds sing, and once again he falls asleep. In his dream a character named Thought appears, calls him by name, and, in answer to the dreamer’s question, defines Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. (Prologue.) Thought then leads the dreamer to Wit, who discourses at length on Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. (Passus 1.) The discussion is taken up in turn by Dame Study, Clergy, and Scripture, with intermittent questions and objections by the dreamer. (Passus 2.) Finally, the dreamer summarizes and reflects on what he has learned (11. 250-303), in a passage similar in function to the one given at the conclusion of A1.
The long addition by B (4000 lines) cannot be summarized coherently. Except where, here and there, the poet has borrowed some bit of material—like The Good Samaritan, The Crucifixion, The Four Daughters of God, The Harrowing of Hell, or The Struggle with Anti-Christ—the poem becomes simply a series of discourses on moral, theological, and religious topics, often incomplete in themselves, and usually suggested by the mere occurrence of a word or an idea connected with some other topic which the author happens to be discussing. In recent years scholars have looked for unified structure in the B text (and in C as well), without notable success. But even if a coherent plan of organization for B is discovered, it is already apparent that it will be something quite different from what we find in the A-text. "Indeed" (as Dunning says), "it is to B only that the charge commonly made against the author of Piers Plowman of lacking the art of construction must he held to refer; it is the B text M. Legouis has in mind when he says that Langland ‘loses himself, and us with him, in his labyrinthine allegories and pictures.’" Or, as an earlier authority, Jusserand, remarked, "He was the victim and not the master of his thought."
Most of the numerous studies of Piers the Plowman published in the last fifty years have dealt in one way or another with the vastly complicated problem of the authorship of the three versions. At various times it has been argued that there were different authors for A1, A2, B, and C; for A, B, and C; for AB, and C; and so forth.
Of course, as long as it was not recognized that the Piers the Plowman poems existed in more than one version, it was
quite natural that a single authorship should be assumed. But from the earliest times there has been diversity of opinion as to what was the name of the author. William (or Robert) Langland (or Langley), Willelmus W., John Malverne, and others are all mentioned in one or another of the early catalogues and MSS of the poem.
In taking up the problem of the name of the author, we may first consider the internal evidence of the poems themselves. The passages in A that have been regarded as evidence of the poet’s name are these:
Thanne ran Repentaunce and reherside his teme,
And made Wil to wepe watir with his eighen.
Thanne were marchauntis merye and wepe for joye,
And yaven Wille for his writyng wollene clothis;
For be copiede thus here clause, thei couden hym gret mede.
Thanne Thought in that tyme seide this wordis:
"Where that Do-wel and Do-bet and Do-best beth in londe,
Here is Wil wolde wyte, yif Wit couthe hym teche."
Between A1 and A2 occurs the colophon:
Explicit hie Visio Willelmi de Petro de Ploughman.
Eciam incipit Vita de Do-wel, Do-bet, & Do-best
secundum wyt & resoun.
Against this evidence it has been urged that the author may not have identified himself with the "Wille" in the dream; that each of the above quotations refers to "Wille" in the third person, whereas when the dreamer represents himself as taking part in the action, he speaks in the first person; e. g., the dreamer is obliged to look over the shoulder of Piers and the priest in order to discover what is in the document:
And I, behynde hem bothe, beheld al the bulle.
In two lynes it lay, and nought a, lettre more,
And was writen right thus, in witnesse of Treuthe:
In the B-text occurs this passage:
"What is Charite?" quod I tho. "A childissh thinge," he seide;
"Nisi efliciamini sicut paruuli, non intrabitis in regnum celorum;
With-outen fauntelte or foly, a fre liberal wille."
"Where shulde men fynde such a frende, with so fre an herte?
I have lyved in londe," quod 1, "my name is Longe Wille,
And fonde I nevere ful charite before ne bihynde."
(B 15. 145-149)
Here the dreamer is speaking in the first person, but what does line 148 mean? Is it the name of the author, inverted and fitted into the line? Or does it mean "I have lived in the world, my very name is Long Wille [i.e., I have had long experience], and nevertheless I have never found full charity?" If we could be sure that the testimony of the early ascriptions of Piers the Plowman were [sic] independently derived, and not simply acrostic interpretations of line 148, we might regard this passage as substantiating evidence. Without such assurance, however, neither interpretation can be regarded as conclusive, and we therefore cannot accept the line as independent evidence of the name of the author.
The C-text has no definite evidence in the text about the author’s name. C, however, changes completely B 15.148 to:
Ich have lyved in
and changes A 9.118 to:
Her is on wolde wite yf Wit couthe teche.
Allusions to the dreamer’s size or height are found in all three versions (if we consider "Long Wille" such an allusion). In A the dreamer encounters Thought, whom he describes as "A
muchel man . . . lik to my selve (9. 61) ; in B, the dreamer seems to call himself "Long Wille" in C, the dreamer, in answer to Reason, who has asked him what he can do, says:
Ich am to waik to worche with sykel other with sytbe,
And to long, leyf me, lowe for to stoupe,
To worchen as a workeman, eny whyle to dure." (C 6.23-25)
As mentioned above, three MSS of A have in whole or in part a twelfth passus which finds no counterpart in B or C. In the one MS which has the entire passus, the last twelve lines at least are stated in the text to be the composition of John But:
And so bad Johan But, busily wel ofte. (12.106)
In this twelfth passus the dreamer is again called Wille (12.51, 89, 99,
103). There are strong arguments for believing that John But wrote the whole of
passus twelve. If so, or even if he wrote only the latter part, we have no
means of deciding whether he actually knew the name of the author of A, or
whether he based the name oil the references to Wille in the text or the
We may now deal with the external evidence.
In 1557 Bale published his Scriptorum illustrium
Brytannie ... Catalogus. Here he attributed the poem to Robertus Langlande.
Bale’s Index (the note book in which he collected the materials for his Catalogus)
contains four entries, scattered through it, in all of which the poem is
ascribed to Robertus Langlande; two entries were obtained from Nicholas
Brigham, one from William Sparke, and one from John Wysdome. Sparke, Brigham,
ment, and Sparke’s seems to have been based on
In the Huntington Library manuscript HM 128 (formerly Ashburnham 130) is an entry in a fifteenth-century hand (according to Skeat, the hand of Bale) which says: "Robert or William Langland made Pers Ploughman." This note would seem to be a composite of two different ascriptions of authorship. Further, on grounds of probability, the name Robert seems more likely to be correct than William. William might easily be drawn from A1, A2, B, or the colophon, and considered the name of the author. There is little reason for supposing that the name Robert could have been similarly derived, though, as Skeat pointed out, the opening line of A2:
Thus yrobid in rosset I romide aboute,
may have been misread as:
Thus I, Robert, in rosset romide aboute,
and as a matter of fact one A manuscript (M) does have the reading:
Thus Roberd in Russet I Romyd abowtyn.
If, as Skeat suggested, a tradition containing the name Robert did develop in this way, one can easily see how much stronger the temptation must have been to seize on the name William, for which clues are much more abundant.
In a C-text MS in
son of de Rokayle—thus accounting for the difference in name. The other view is that the note is composite, one tradition attributing the poem to a son of Stacy de Rokayle, and another to William de Langlond.
We have seen that Wright was the first modern scholar to arrange B and C in the order generally accepted. Wright believed that these two versions were by different authors. In 1860-61 the American scholar George Marsh also suggested that more than one author might be involved. Skeat, however—though he deserves the greatest credit for distinguishing three versions of the poem and arranging them A, B, C,—did not attempt to deal with the statements of Wright and Marsh that two authors may very -well have been concerned in the composition. Yet Skeat did explicitly argue this problem. He believed that all three versions were by one man, for two reasons: the similarity of style, and the improbability that two or more authors of such great power could have lived contemporaneously.
Subsequent studies of the Piers the Plowman poems, based on the assumption that they were all by one author, naturally paid primary attention to the 13- and C-texts, and especially to B, which was regarded as an exhibition of the full and mature powers of the poet. Not until 1906 was this view questioned, or even the possibility of a different view suggested. In that year Manly printed the announcement of his belief that at least five authors (including John But) were concerned in the composition of the poems.
In considering the possibility that A1, A2, B, and C are by different authors, as Manly thought, we must keep in mind medieval methods of composition and transmission of literature. Before the invention of printing, an author’s control over his work ceased as soon as be released one copy from his possession. Any scribe-editor, or any other poet, was thereafter absolutely
free to introduce into the text such changes as he saw fit, to rewrite the whole work, or to add an extension. We have plenty of instances in point. Perhaps the most notable is the Roman de la Rose. The first 1,000 lines of this famous poem were composed by Guillaume de Lorris, the last 18,000 lines forty years later by Jean de Meun. "Robert of Gloucester’s Riming Chronicle" is by three different persons, one of whom merely worked over some portions. The English Guy of Warwick exists in at least two versions by different authors. Into twenty five MSS of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was inserted the spurious tale of Gamelyn, which passed as authentic till the eighteenth century. The Old French Floris and Blauncheflur exists in two very different versions, one based on the other, but containing many additions, insertions, and modifications. Many Middle English poems, such as Floris and Blauncheflur, Awntyrs of Arthure, Debate between the Body and the Soul, and Lagamon’s Brut, exist in MSS which exhibit such variations of form and content that it is generally agreed that the differences are due to different persons. Furthermore, the attitude of medieval authors toward property rights in their work was very different from the modern attitude. Apparently few authors cared to attach their names to their work. The amount of anonymous poetry and prose is therefore very great.
In view of the effect of Manly’s theory on subsequent studies of the different versions, it will be well to give here a very brief summary of his argument in favor of multiple authorship.
There are important differences between A1 and A2, between A and B, and between B and C. Some of these differences may be found in the diction, meter, sentence structure, dialect, figures of speech, views on the same social and theological questions, and the power of visualizing objects and scenes. Further, B has copied textual imperfections in A, which he would have corrected had he been A,. Finally, the merits of the A-text have been greatly underestimated. Instead of being a rough,
crude, preliminary sketch for B, A, has remarkable unity and coherence of structure, directness of movement, and freedom from digression.
This introduction is obviously not the place to review and weigh the extensive literature of the controversy aroused by Manly’s article. The serious student should study the arguments pro and con, and decide for himself. Of course the best test, as Manly suggested, is to read carefully A1, A2, and the long addition by B separately, with an open mind for similarities and differences. It is upon this test, together with careful studies of the differences, that the ultimate general decision must eventually be made.
III. METER AND ALLITERATION
Piers the Plowman, along with the Alexander romances, William of Palerne, Wynnere and Wastoure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and many others, is associated with that movement of the second half of the fourteenth century known as the alliterative revival. A great number of poets of this period employed the alliterative long line which had, as a rule, four main stresses or accents, held together by alliteration, that is, repetition of the initial sound of accented syllables. According to this system, the first four lines of our poem would be scanned as follows:
In a sómer sésoun, whanne sófte was the sónne,
I shóp me in-to a shróud, as I a shép wére;
In ábite as an érmyte, unhóly of wórkis,
I wente wíde in this wórld, wóndris to hére.
In the most common type line, the first three accented syllables alliterate, and the fourth does not (aa/ax) :
Me befel a ferly, of fairie me thoughte. (pr. 6.)
About 60 per cent of the lines in the A-text are of this type.
However, many variations on this basic pattern are to be found, notably the following:
And seide, "Mercy, ma dame, what is this to mene?" (1. 11)
And alle the denis and sudenis as destreris hem dighte, (2.137)
With depe dikes and derke, and dredful of sight. (pr. 16)
There that meschief is gret, Mede may helpe; (3. 162)
Thanne gan I mete a merveillous swevene, (pr.11)
Thorugh yeftis han yonge men to renne and to ride. (3.199)
Tok Mede be the myddel, and broughte hire to chaumbre. (3.10)
Very few lines in A fail to alliterate. One example is:
And yet he betith me ther-to, and lith be my maiden; (4.46)
A special feature, found in Old as well as Middle English poetry, is the alliteration of certain consonant groups, notably sp, st, and sc. In the A-text we find all of these represented, including both sh and sk:
Spiceris speke with hym, to aspic here ware, (2.187)
And be sleward of youre stede til ye be stowid betere. (5. 39)
Besshette hym in here shoppis to shewen here ware, (2. 175)
I nile not scorne," quath Scripture, "but scrvveyns lighe, (11.221)
On the other band, these consonant groups are not always treated
(as they were in Old English) as separate consonant sounds for purposes of alliteration. For example we find:
Symonye and Cyvyle stondith forth bothe, (2.54)
And seide ful softely, in shrifte as it were, (3.36)
How that scabbide shep shul here wolle save, (8.17)
Vowels alliterate, as in Old English, but they may also, contrary to Old English practice, alliterate with h. Examples are:
Adam and Eve he eggide to ille. (1.63)
As ancris and ermytes that holden hem in here sellis (pr.28)
One further characteristic deserves attention. Especially noticeable in our poem is the alliteration of voiced and voiceless stops and fricatives (b:p, g:c, v:f). For example:
Brochide hem with a pakke-nedle, and pleitide hem togidere, (5.125)
And become a good man for any coveitise, I rede. (2.32)
And fetten oure vitailes of fornicatouris; (2.142)
The dialect of a piece of Middle English verse may sometimes be fixed with a fair degree of certainty, if we do not have the author’s original MS, from rhymes and alliteration. Rhymes have been regarded as making fairly sure those forms which occur in rhyme. In the same way, alliteration may be used to ascertain those forms which are regarded as dialect criteria. Ben occurs in rhyme in Chaucer’s authentic verse, but in the Romaunce of the Rose, arn, which never occurs in Chaucer’s genuine poetry, is also found. This is one of the arguments that have been used to prove that Chaucer did not write Fragment B of the Romaunce.
If, on the other hand, it becomes apparent that the author is
familiar with more than one dialect, the problem is not so simple; for like many modern poets, he may use different dialect forms to satisfy the varying needs of his rhyme or alliteration. Among the usually reliable dialect criteria are the present indicative plural forms of the verb "to be." Generally speak ing, we find are in the North, ben and arn, in Midland, and beth in the South of England in the latter half of the fourteenth century. In the A-text there are several instances where ben alliterates. For example:
How besy thei ben aboute the mase (1.6)
Further, we find one or two instances where arn is evidently the author’s choice:
Aungelis and alle thing arn at his wille, (10.31)
Oure enemys and alle men that arn nedy and pore: (11. 238)
It should he noted that such examples cannot be used to decide between are and arn, or ben and beth. For example, in the line
Beggeris and bidderis ben not in the bulle, (8.67)
four MSS of our poem (TUH3Di) have the form ben, four others (H2DWN) have be, and no less than six (ChRMLVH) have beth (T2A are defective at this point, and I has weryn).
Another test is the form used for the third
singular feminine, and third plural pronouns. By the time of our poem, she and
thei were common in
But holy chirche and hy holden bet togidere, (pr. 63)
Hendely thanne heo behigbte hem the same, (3.28)
It is worth mentioning that the forms heo and hy are frequently obscured in the MSS of the A-text. In pr. 63, where the critical
reading is hy, no MS has hy, while five MSS (H2DUMI) have he, five others (TChRT2L) have thei, and four (WDiVH) change the line in an obvious effort to "improve" the alliteration. In 3.28, five manuscripts (TH2LVH) have heo, and eight MSS (ChDURIWNDi) have she. These two instances, especially the former, illustrate the importance of utilizing alliteration in dialect tests wherever possible.
There seems to be one instance in A2 where she may be intended to alliterate:
I say it be tho," quath she, "that shewen be here werkis (11.13)
It seems fairly safe to say, however, that the A-text—certainly A1—attests the use of the provincial forms heo and hy as against she and thei.
It appears very likely, therefore, that the author (or authors) of the A-text knew more than one dialect, or perhaps even used varying dialect forms in his own speech. In support of this supposition, it is possible to deduce the Northern form, kirke, in the A-text, in several instances where the alliteration is obviously on k, e. g.,
The king and his knightes to the chirche [i. e. kirke] wente, (5.1)
while on the other hand we find the same word in alliteration where initial ch is clearly the voiceless affricate:
And ek as chast as a child that in chirche wepith, (1.154)
The alliteration of f and v is sometimes cited as evidence of dialect. As already mentioned (see above, under METER AND ALLITERATION), this phenomenon is to be found in the A-text, but it is doubtful that we can be sure that it represents anything more than the exercise of poetic license on the part of the writer.
It must be emphasized that the dialect of the base MS—in
the case of the A-text,
V. THE CRITICAL TEXT
Scholars have recognized the need for an edition of Piers the Plowman based on modern methods of textual criticism ever since the appearance of Manly’s articles on the authorship of the three versions. Manly himself, though he never abandoned his theory of multiple authorship, declined to publish further on the subject pending the construction of adequate critical texts. Work on a new edition by the Early English Text Society has been in progress for over forty years, but during this time students of the poem have had to rely solely on Skeat’s text.
Any textual study of Piers the Plowman must begin with a consideration of the A-text, since it in all probability represents the poem in its earliest form, and is the base from which the later versions diverge. It is of course true that the B- and C-texts are of value in reconstructing the A-text where the A manuscripts are divided and -where, at the same time, revisions of the later texts do not obscure the original reading. Any critical text of A issued at this time, therefore, may be subject to some minor revisions once those of B and C have appeared. The value of having a critical text of A, however, even with this limitation, will certainly be obvious to any scholar who has tried to study the poem with only Skeat’s text to guide him.
Skeat’s A-text, in spite of its shortcomings, was of great value for many years. No previous editor had recognized the existence of A, as distinct from B and C, and the publication of the Vernon text with variants from a number of other A manuscripts represented a tremendous advance in our knowledge of the texts of Piers the Plowman. Nevertheless, Skeat himself eventually recognized that it was inevitable that his work should
be superseded. In the first place it is now apparent that the
A little over a year after the appearance of Manly’s article on the lost leaf, Thomas A. Knott, in the summer of 1907, began work on the text of the first part of the A-version, or A1, ending with 8.126, the point at which Manly believed the work of the original author may have terminated. Shortly thereafter a similar study was undertaken independently by R. W. Chambers and J. H. G. Grattan. The latter were the first to appear in print on the subject, and the results of their research were summarized as follows:
1. That a nearer approximation to the original
A-text can be drawn from the MSS of the TU group than from the
2. That any text which is to reproduce closely the original poem, must be founded both upon the TU group and also, although to a less degree, upon the VH group; the MSS which belong to neither tradition must be used to turn the scale in doubtful cases; whilst the danger of introducing readings which may themselves be the result of correction from a B- or C-text, must be borne in mind.
3. That a text so formed will be found to approximate much more closely to the received B-text than the received A-text does.
4. That only when we know what is the "diction, metre and sentence structure" of the original A-text, can we argue with certainty whether these are, or are not, materially different from those of the B-additions, or decide whether Bs treatment of the A-text is really inconsistent with unity of authorship.
Some six years later Knott published his findings,
concluding that the A manuscripts fall into two main groups-the first
In many ways these two studies confirmed each other in their classification of the MSS. In other instances there were serious differences. For example, before Knott published in 1915, Chambers and Grattan had concluded that aside from the two main groups of MSS (the so-called VH and TU groups), the MSS A, H3, L, and possibly I, were all independent witnesses. In subsequent articles on the A-text, however, they locate all the MSS in two groups—one, VH, the other, all other A rnanuscripts—in accordance with Knott’s x and y classification.
This edition of the A-text is based on Knott’s
study of A1, together with the present editor’s study of the text of
A2, completed at the
MSS of the A-text
Knott’s work was based on the readings of
fourteen A manuscripts. Since that time three previously unknown MSS of the
A-text have been discovered. They are 733 B in the National Library of Wales,
the MS now in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and a recent
and most important discovery, the Chaderton MS in the Library of the
For the benefit of students of the A-text, a revised list of A manuscripts is given below, including those newly discovered,
the new locations of MSS that have changed hands in recent years, and peculiar characteristics of other MSS which may he of value in studying the variants given in the textual notes. The sigla appear to the left, with those used by Chambers and Grattan given in parentheses where they differ from Knott’s.
H2—Harleian 6041. Mid-fifteenth century. Parts of folios 23, 24, 26, and 27 are torn out, thus causing the loss of 7.59-78, 86-109, 119-140, 148-192, 202-222, 232-251, and 262-284; and the loss of parts of 7. 53-58, 81-85, 112-118, 143-147, 193-201, 223-231, 252-261, 285-293. A folio between folios 33 and 34 has been lost (though the numbering is consecutive) causing the omission. of 10.104-162; and part of folio 35 is torn away, resulting in the loss of parts of 11. 34-4:1 and 64-71.
D—Douce 323. Second half of fifteenth century. Has 3.135-159 before 3. 77; then omits 3. 120-134. Wrongly placed after 11.203 are 11.127-163.
R—Rawlinson Poet. 137. First half of fifteenth century. All
practically complete save for a few sporadic omissions of single lines. Contains the whole of passus 12 (see APPENDIX 1). Has the dislocation of part of passus 7 already described (see U above).
A—Ashmole 1468. About the end of the fifteenth century (?). Begins at 1. 142, because the preceding leaves have been cut out; then omits 2. 18-145, 3.112-226, 7.33-85, 8.32-80, because leaves have been cut out. One folio (numbered pp. 339-40—the numbering is consecutive) has been wrongly pasted in on a new inserted stub, causing lines 7. 237-286 to appear before 7. 86.
M—MS in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries of London (formerly the Bright MS). End of fifteenth century (?). Has a few insertions from the B-text, mainly in passus 5.
H3—Harleian 3954. About 1420. Is B-text to (B) 5.128, then A-text beginning with (A) 5.106. Omits 8.112-9.96 (no break in the text).
I (J)—M 818 in the Pierpont Morgan Library (formerly the Ingilby MS). Early fifteenth century Last line in the MS is 12.88.
W—Duke of Westminster’s MS, Eaton Hall. Mid fifteenth century (?). Inserts a large number of lines and passages from the B- and C-texts: B1.32-33 after Al. 31; B1.113-116 after A1.111; C3.28-29 after A2.20; C3.84-87, 89, 92, 98-100, 102-104 after A2. 65; C3.185-188 after A2.130; C3.243-248 after A2.194;
C4.32-33 after A3.33; B4.17-18 after A4.17; B4.62 after A4.48; B4.119-122 after A4.103 ; then follows A.108, then B4.123-125; B4.152-156 after A4.143; B4.165-170 after A4.145; B53.36-41 after A5.33; B5.49-56 after A5.39; B5.60 after A5.42; B5.87-93 after A5.68; B5.120-121 after A5.98.
N—733 B, National Library of
Di (K)—Digby 145. End of the fifteenth century. No extended omissions. Has several contaminations from the C-text, especially in the Prologue, which is chiefly C-text, with a few readings from A. The other insertions are B3.52-54, 56-58 after A3.45; C7.423-8.55 after A5.220; then A5.215-220 is repeated (Digby changes 214 so that it reads "this glotoun" for "sleuthe") ; C8.70-154 after A5.251; C8.189-306 substituted for A6.31-123.
H—Harleian 875. About 1400. Omits 6.49-7. 2 because a leaf has been lost. Last line is 8.139 (leaf lost).
Classification of the MSS
It is not possible to include in this brief
introduction the large body of evidence supporting the classification of MSS of
the A-text. It seems well, however, to indicate briefly the genealogical
relationships which have been deduced from the errors, deviations, omissions,
and so on which the various MSS have in common. This can best be done by means
of a diagram, or genealogical "tree." Of course no single diagram can
account for all of the complexities that we inevitably find in a study of this
kind, where the text exists in seventeen MSS, copied over a period of more than
a hundred years. For example; the
A glance at the list of MSS of the A-text will reveal the fact that for the second part of the A-text only thirteen MSS are available for classification. The four delinquent MSS are: T2,
which is defective after 7.213; L, defective after 8.152; H, defective after 8.139 ; and N, which becomes C-text after 9.13.
The loss of 11, companion MS to V in the x group, is a serious one, since it is no longer possible in A2 to distinguish the peculiar deviations and errors of V from those of x. But it is assumed in the classification that V continues to represent an independent line of descent in A2, since it fails to share the common errors of the y group. For the most part the y manuscripts in A2 maintain the same relationships which they had in A1. An exception to this is W, which joins the minor group AMH3. The B-text remains as a third independent line of transmission in A2, though it is frequently not available for comparison because of its revisions, which are much more extensive than the revisions of A1. A separate tree for A2 will help clarify these differences.
[Insert stemma image]
Basis of the Text
The basis of the text is manuscript R 3. 14
in the library of
with occasional readings from other MSS. On the contrary, the readings adopted into the critical text are always the critical readings, as attested in every case by the weight of evidence, genealogical and other. No matter how plausible the reading of T may seem, it must not be retained if not supported. By "basis" is meant, therefore, little more than the basis for spell ing and dialect, for whenever the reading of T is replaced by the critical reading, it seems better to make the latter conform in spelling and dialect to T. Otherwise we should have a critical text containing too many inconsistent forms and spellings.
Manuscript T was chosen as the basis of the critical text because it is early (about 1400), because it is well spelled, and because it contains comparatively few individual deviations and errors, and therefore probably requires less changing to make a critical text than any other MS. It should be said that the critical text would have been exactly what it is, save for dialect and spelling, no matter what particular MS had been chosen for a basis.
VI. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The student whose only acquaintance with medieval
literature is derived from reading Chaucer will no doubt find the world of Piers
the Plowman different in many ways from that of the
overshadowing all others during the Middle Ages—is essential for an understanding of Piers the Plowman.
The Church and Ecclesiastics
Ecclesiastics in the medieval church fell
into two divisions—the "secular" and the "regular." At the
head of both were the Pope and the college of cardinals. In
The term "clerk" was loosely used to mean
every person who adopted the religious life as a profession, who became a
priest, monk, or friar, or who, having been educated in ecclesiastical
schools—and there were no others—entered some other profession, such as the
law, medicine, teaching, architecture, or clerical work in the service of the
king. The clergy formed a very important class in society, socially,
economically, and numerically. In 1377 a poll tax was levied on the whole body
of clergy over fourteen years of age in
communities, especially monasteries, had come to own about one-third of the
Practically the only avenue to an education—that is, a "schooling" in the modern sense of the term—was through the schools and universities, which were almost exclusively conducted and taught by priest, monk, or friar, and maintained by some church or monastic subsidy. Through the training here gained, a "career" lay open to the poorest boy that he could not hope for otherwise. Bishop Grosseteste was the son of a serf. The clerks came chiefly, however, from the middle classes and the younger sons of the landed gentry.
Entering a parish or monastic school at the age of
seven, the boy began the study of "grammar," that is, of the Latin
language, with Donatus, Priscian, and Terence as textbooks. Donet "became
a synonym for primer, as in Piers the Plowman A 5.122, where
Covetousness, telling of his apprenticeship, says, "Thanne drough I me
among drapers, my donet to lerne." After seven years, during which
the pupil might, and usually did, take minor orders—advancing from door-keeper
to lector and exorcist—he was admitted at the age of fourteen to the
At eighteen, if he were nominated to a benefice or guaranteed a living by a monastery, or a patrimony by his family, he would become a subdeacon. After pursuing the study of the seven arts—grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy—and the three philosophies—physics, metaphysics, and ethics—for three or four years, he would be-
come Master of Arts. Meanwhile, at the age of twenty, he would be ordained a
deacon. Four more years of study followed, especially of the Quattuor Libri
Sententiarum, a twelfth-century compilation by Peter Lombard of the opinions
of the older teachers, especially St. Augustine and Gregory the Great, and the
newer teachers, welded together into a body of doctrine. This book, which
furnished a rich store of matter, treated with sobriety and moderation, had
become the standard manual of theology. Upon showing ability to lecture on this
book, the candidate became a Bachelor of Divinity, and at the age of
twenty-five, if physically perfect and of good life, and if possessed of a
patrimony, a membership in a brotherhood, or a benefice, he was ordained
priest. He might then go into parish work; or, if educated by a monastery, he
might return to his community; or, unlike Chaucer’s clerk, who was not so
worldly as to have office, but rather like those in the prologue of Piers
the Plowman, he might become a clerk "of acountis, the king for to
serve," or a clerk "of the kinges bench, the cuntre to shende."
Or he might prefer, if be had means, to remain at the University, and, eighteen
or twenty years after matriculation, upon showing ability to lecture on one of
the canonical books of the Bible, he would take the degree of Doctor of
Theology. Or he might go to
The scholastic career here sketched is a composite one, and not, of course, what every student went through. Many, probably the majority, after entering sacred orders, became attached to cathedrals, colleges, and parish churches, and never went any further with their schooling.
The two archbishoprics,
divided, for administrative purposes, into from two to eight archdeaconates. At the head of the diocese was the bishop, with his cathedral and his cathedral chapter, and under him the archdeacons. The bishop had general charge of all ecclesiastical affairs in his jurisdiction, with powers of visitation and inspection, and the presiding power over the annual synod. All the clergy of the diocese were required to attend this synod or to send representatives, and the synodsmen were questioned regard ing the affairs of their parishes. Periodically the bishop held a court, called a consistory, to settle ecclesiastical questions. Each archdeacon had charge of minor matters of general or parish administration in his district. He installed the priests’ held a court for the adjudication of cases in his jurisdiction, and visited and inspected in his territory.
The Cathedral Chapters
The bishop and the clergy were originally one family. Some were always at headquarters, where the choir and the cathedral school were conducted, and some were preaching in the field. The development of the parochial system led to the establishment of the permanent local residence of the parish clergy, and to their separation from the staff of the bishop. The duties of this staff were the conduct of divine service at the cathedral, and the handling of the general diocesan work. Several officers developed special powers and duties. The dean had general command in the absence of the bishop. The chancellor had charge of the school. The precentor was responsible for the services, especially the music. The treasurer was in charge of the bishop’s common fund.
The body of cathedral canons developed an independent corporate life. The common property of the cathedral was divided up: one part was assigned to the bishop; one to the endowment of the chapter; separate and distinct endowments, called prebends, were assigned to each member of the chapter, and there
was also a common fund divisible among the canons, or some of them. When a
parson obtained leave of his bishop to "sette his benefice to byre,"
and went to
The chapter came to elect their own dean, and
became a separate corporation. They frequently elected the bishop, subject, of
course, to the king’s approval, and actually in practice, at the nomination of
the king. Some chapters adopted the Benedictine rule, and became monasteries.
There were seven of these, notably that at
The parish over which the priest exercised spiritual rule did not necessarily coincide with any other geographical boundaries, though in the country it often did include a manor. In the towns, there were often several parishes.
In charge of the parish church was the rector or parson, who was appointed by the patron of the living, who might be the lord of the manor or the abbot of a monastery, with the approval of the bishop. It was the duty of the archdeacon to put the priest in charge of the parish, and the fee for the ceremony was usually two shillings to forty pence.
The rector, if his parish was poor, and if he had
sufficient influence with the bishop, might obtain leave to run off to
was heavy, or if its revenues permitted, there might be a curate or two, receiving their salary from the rector, or perhaps there might be a chantry priest, who, in addition to singing in a chantry attached to the church, served as an assistant priest of the parish. Also there were two kinds of chaplains, one employed by a nobleman or a person of distinction to say mass in his private chapel, the other attached to a "chapel of ease," founded in some outlying but thickly settled portion of a large, scattered parish. Deacons and subdeacons were frequently employed to assist the priest when the means of the parish afforded their services.
The house of the rector was very simple. It usually consisted of one hall—which was, of course, the living room, dining room, and office—a kitchen, and a chamber. In rural parishes the house was generally located on a main road, so that there was much travel, and consequently hospitality was constantly in demand. There was therefore often a special room or building for guests, and a stable for their horses. Part of the revenues were usually set aside for hospitality.
Chantries were a form of religious foundation much in fashion in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They met with much opposition and were often attacked by the satirists. A chantry was a foundation for the maintenance of one or more priests, to offer up prayers for the soul of the founder, his family and ancestors, and usually of all Christian souls. Other motives than the mere perpetuation of the name of the founder might govern the establishment. The benefactor often aimed to render it possible for the outlying population of a large and scattered parish to worship in a chapel under a so-called chantry priest. Or he chose this means of adding to the working clerical staff of the town. Or he thus furnished extra teaching for a grammar school. The greatest numbers of chantries were created between 1450 and 1500, but there were many before 1400. A majority were established at an already existing altar of a cathedral, or a
monastic or parish church, although many chapels were specially provided. In cathedrals, many small chapels were screened off. Not all chantries were perpetual. Often they were for only a year or two, or perhaps ten or twenty years. The pay was not large, even for the time; it usually amounted to about five
pounds a year.
Preaching was frequently enjoined on the parish clergy, and many manuals and helps were provided. The canons of Edgar required preaching every Sunday. Ælfric (1030) directed the clergy to preach the ten commandments and the eight capital vices. Alexander, Bishop of Coventry (1224-40), required his clergy to preach every Sunday on the seven deadly sins. Grosseteste (1235-54) instructed his clergy to preach every Sunday, and furnished them with topics. Archbishop Peckham in his constitutions of 1281 commanded preaching at least four times a year. The sermons had to cover the fourteen articles of faith, the ten commandments, the two evangelical precepts of charity, the seven deadly sins, the seven principal virtues, the seven works of mercy, and the seven sacraments of grace. In 1357 Thoresby, Archbishop of York, wrote in English an exposition of the fourteen points of the creed, the ten Commandments, the seven sacraments, etc., and sent it to all his parish priests, bidding them to preach often to the people, and to urge them to teach them to the children. A synod at Ely in 1364 enjoined the priests to preach frequently, and to expound the commandments, and so forth.
A monastery was the abode of a society of men or women who lived together in common, were supposed to eat together, sleep in one common dormitory, attend services together in the church, transact business and pursue their employment in the sight and hearing of each other in a common cloister, and who were buried
in a common graveyard. The "convent" was the association or corporation of persons; the "monastery" was the dwelling place.
The first requisite of the group was of course the church, the heart of the place. It was built in the form of a cross, with the nave running cast and west, with the chancel east, and the transepts north and south. The arrangement of the other buildings varied, but they were regularly built so as to form
[Image of MONTECASSINO]
within the group a rectangular open space, surrounded by covered and screened walks, which constituted the "cloister." The buildings included the chapter—house, the meeting place for business and corporate purposes of the whole chapter—the dormitory and the refectory; the cellar and the kitchen; and the rooms for dispensing alms and for the housing of guests—for this was an important function of the medieval monastery. One room, or one part of the cloister, was assigned as the scriptorium, or writing room, which was one of the busiest departments of the institution. Here was transacted the business of the agents and
the clerks, here were drawn up the deeds and other documents, the conveyances, leases, enfeoffments, here were written the school books, service books, the annals or chonicle[sic], and probably much secular literature.
Administration of the Monasteries
At the head of the monastery was the abbot,
with a prior under him, and perhaps, if the corporation was a large one, with
many interests, one or two subpriors. If there were large possessions at some
distance, there might be a subordinate group of monks nearby, with a building,
to care for the business. Such an outpost was called a cell. Chaucer’s monk was
the head, or keeper, of such a cell. In the main monastery were a
The Three Kinds of Monastic Rule
There were three chief kinds of monastic
Benedict had prescribed seven of these services daily, probably basing the number on the 164th verse of the 119th psalm, "Seven times a day do I praise thee. . . ." The hours were: Matins, which came at midnight and at certain seasons just before sunrise; Lauds, immediately following sunrise; Prime, at Six A.M.; Tierce, at 9 A.M.; Sext, at 12 M; Nones, at 3 P.M.; Vespers, at sunset; and a supplementary service, at first at 9 P.M., called Compline, which in practice was conjoined to Vespers.
The Cluniac Benedictine rule was a reformed
Benedictine rule. The establishers of this order gave up field work and manual
labor, and lengthened, multiplied, and elaborated the church services so that
they filled nearly the whole day. As distinguished from the Benedictines, with
whom each monastery formed an independent corporation, with full autonomy, the
monasteries belonging to
The Cistercians, of whom there were about one
hundred houses in
order of prayer and religious exercises in order to make their daily life more convenient. They had little voice in the government, and were rarely ordained or inducted into the higher offices. In this kind of monastery, each abbey was fully independent so far as internal matters were concerned, but all were subject to an annual meeting of all the abbots at Citeaux. The abbey at Citeaux was in some respects the model for each independent abbey.
A monastery aimed to be an entirely self-supporting community; it produced its own food and drink, clothing, shoes, wood, iron work, and so far as possible every material thing used by its members. Of the production and use of all these things, as of all financial transactions, the most minute accounts were kept.
Although the primary idea in monastic life was complete withdrawal from every temporal activity of the world, and consequent freedom to live a purely spiritual life, the very nature of the institution made this ideal difficult to attain. Merely the material wants of a community of men withdrew considerable attention from the religious life. But the monastic ideal continued to hold an appeal for devout men everywhere.
As has been seen, the parish clergy were concerned with local administration and preaching, the, cathedral chapters with diocesan administration, and the monks—theoretically at least with a life of religious contemplation and worship. The spirit of the friars was originally something different from any of these. The monastic system had never been designed to meet the needs of anyone outside the organization. The parochial system, ideal for rural districts and for small villages, broke down almost completely in the rapidly growing towns and cities that resulted from the increased trade and manufacture
of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The slums were scarcely touched
even superficially by any form of religious work. It was originally to reach
these wretched and bitterly poor out casts that St. Francis of
Giovanni Bernardone, born at
With amazing rapidity the brotherhood expanded in
At about this same time another brotherhood was being established, for a different purpose, by Dominic, a Spanish Augustinian canon. He was twelve years older than Francis, an educated theologian, and, in a subordinate capacity, had been for ten years concerned in the prosecution of the Albigensian heretics. He was deeply concerned by the ignorance and error
that seemed to him to be corrupting the
In 1221 the Dominicans reached
The rapidity of their growth and the consequent need for organization quickly caused modifications of the more primitive ideas of Francis about simplicity of life and action among the Fratres Minores. He seems to have been impatient of the necessity for machinery and ordered work. His emphasis was always on poverty, and fervent preaching and self-sacrifice. His Rule forbade, the possession of property of any kind, not only by the friars as individuals (as among the monks) but also by the organization. The brothers were forbidden to touch money, or to own rents or revenues. They were not allowed to own
books or parchment or ink. They were required to toil daily at hard labor. His original idea seems to have been that they were to receive from those for whom they labored enough to sustain them, and were to live by begging their food only when the results of their work did not suffice. They soon, however, practiced begging as the regular means of livelihood.
From the general favor in which the friars were
quite evidently held by the better and middle classes for almost a century, it
is difficult to believe anything except that in the main their observance of
their rule was faithful. Yet by the fourteenth century, at any rate, we find
that not only satirists, but also other people seriously interested in the
welfare of common folk, especially, for instance, Wyclif and Fitz-Ralph,
Archbishop of Armagh, in their sermons against the friars, point to very
wide-spread and serious abuses. In fact, nearly every provision of the
Testament of St. Francis seems to have been violated or evaded. The prohibition
against owning property was evaded by putting land and buildings in the name of
the Pope, or of trustees. The friars did not touch money because they wore
gloves or received it in bowls. They not only owned books, but when they came
to dominate, as they did, the universities, there were bitter complaints that
they had a monopoly on the books prepared for students, so that students had to
join their orders or go bookless. They became the most learned body in
clergy was honest and conscientious. A priest had to obtain leave of his bishop to absolve parishioners who had committed serious sins. But the friar had no superior in the matter, and consequently could immediately absolve even those who had committed the gravest crimes. From the comments of the satirists they seem to have been rather liberal in giving penance, especially, like Chaucer’s friar, where they knew they would have a "good pitaunce."
Another serious abuse arose in connection with the "Tertiaries." These were originally men and women of devout lives who wished to aid the work of the friars more intimately without actually entering the orders and taking the full vows. For the sake of the money, friars ultimately sold letters of fraternity, admitting rich and well-to-do persons to this degree, and guaranteeing the full benefits of membership in the order after death. This is referred to in Piers the Plowman where Meed says that if she were certain that the friar confessor were telling the truth about the benefits, she would donate generously to the making or mending of windows (3.50 ff.), and again at the end of A, where the dreamer deems membership in a fraternity worthless without Do-well (8.172 ff.).
The internal organizations of the different orders
of friars were similar. Each order bad a general in
tury. There were forty-five houses in
St. Benedict, in Chapter I of his Rule,
distinguishes between the cenobitic monks, who live in communities, and the
anchorites, or hermits, who, "not in the first fervor of conversion, but
after long trial in the monastery, and already taught by the example of others,
have learned to fight against the devil, are well prepared to go forth from the
ranks of the brothers to the single combat of the desert. They can now, by
God’s help, safely fight against the vices of their flesh and against evil
thoughts singly, with their own hand and arm, and without the encouragement of
a companion." That there were still in the fourteenth century anchorites
and hermits who observed the ascetic rule of life our author himself testifies
in the prologue, and in the account of Piers, who says that he will support
anchors and hermits who hold themselves in their cells. That there were many
false hermits, however, all three versions of our poem attest. In the prologue
we are told that these great tall lubbers, who were loth to work, make
themselves hermits to have their ease. In
The most notable of the good hermits was Richard
Rolle of Hampole, who died in 1349. At the age of nineteen he left
ture than in secular and scientific studies. Returning home, he improvised garments for himself from some of his sister’s clothing, and retired into uninhabited places to meditate and pray. Coming out in order to attend church, he was regarded as mad by his friends, but finally convinced them of his sanity and the genuineness of his inspiration. They furnished him with robes suitable for a hermit, and he devoted himself to the contemplative life, a life full of fasts and vigils, mortifications, raptures, ecstasies and visions. He was constantly filled with the most rapturous divine love. He was tempted by the devil, but repulsed the attack. He wrote voluminously in Latin and English, lie wrought miracles, and he preached with such fervor that he won many men to God. Finally he settled at Hampole, where he reached absolute perfection of life, and soon afterward died. After his death the nearby nunnery was the object of numerous pilgrimages from those who came to worship at the shrine of the hermit.
Clerks in Worldly Office
We hear in the prologue and elsewhere of clerics of low and high rank who
held worldly office. They were, indeed, the only men with sufficient education
to fill these jobs. Chaucer’s clerk of
Throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Chaucer and Piers the Plowman, but in the edicts of bishops and popes, we hear
of these curious traveling evangelists and their bulls of popes and bishops, their relies, their preaching, their collections, some times in collusion with the parish priest and sometimes with the bishop. The reason for their origin goes back to the infliction of penance for sin—at first penance consisting of fasting and prayer and singing psalms, but later, at times, commuted to money payments which, inflicted judiciously and exacted properly, in themselves involved no abuses. In order to justify freedom from the punishment of sin without due penance—a freedom which could not be attributed to the merit of the sinner—the doctrine of the "treasury" was developed. This, briefly, was that the merits of Christ and the Virgin and the apostles were so much greater than required for themselves that they constituted an accumulation of merit, which was at the disposition of the pope, with his power, handed down from St. Peter, of remitting sin and absolving from its consequences. This treasury was available for sinners who bad little or no merit of their own, and whose sin otherwise doomed them to long punishment in purgatory. The Holy See sent out quaestores, or pardoners, as they were called in the vernacular, to dispense grants from this treasury under proper authority. But the success of the authorized pardoners caused the appearance of numbers of imposters, among whom we may count some of those mentioned in our poem.
The "Black Death"—or, as it was called in its own time, the
"pestilence," or simply "the death"—first appeared in
Europe in the autumn of 1347, coming apparently from Asia by an overland trade
route which bad its western terminus at Caffa, a Genoese commercial port in the
Crimea. The first ship from Caffa carried the infection to
The Black Death was some form of the Eastern or bubonic plague, as we know from the descriptions by contemporary writers. It manifested itself either in dark, hard, dry, tense swellings, as large as an egg, in the neck, the groins, and the armpits, or in smaller swellings or boils over the whole body, either variety being often accompanied by inflammation of the throat and lungs, violent pains in the chest, and spitting and vomiting of blood. The patient was afflicted with fever, delirium, and sometimes frenzy. The disease was almost invariably fatal in from twelve hours to three days, though in the later epidemics recovery sometimes followed the lancing of the swellings.
From recent investigations of the bubonic plague in
The mortality of the epidemic of 1348-49 was undoubtedly
very high. Our sources of information are various: (1) contemporary
statements from various sources; (2) the chronicles; (3) the records of the
appointments of parish priests to vacancies which we find in the institution
books of the bishops; (4) and the registries of the deaths of tenants in the
rolls of the manor courts. The last two are the most definite and reliable. The
contemporary estimates of the death rate place it at from one-fifth to
nine-tenths of the population, but these statistics are not dependable. Some of
them, especially some for
Because of the way that Boccaccio uses the plague as a back ground for his Decameron, and Chaucer for his Pardoner’s Tale, it has been customary to write as if the pestilence was influential in coloring the life of the whole second half of the fourteenth century in two ways, making part of the people deliriously intoxicated with despair, others somber with grief and dread. There can of course be little doubt that for a short time after the first attack, and perhaps from time to time after-
wards, the stricken families and friends—were so numerous that practically the whole country was plunged into mourning. But all the evidence is against accepting the theory that this condition prevailed for fifty years, or anything like so long a time. All the ordinary activities, the amusements, diversions, and life generally, must within a very few years at the most have resumed their customary courses.
The most direct effects of the plague were upon economic, social, and ecclesiastical institutions. Perhaps the most profound effect was upon the agricultural laborers, the artisans, and all other classes of society depending upon the labor of these two classes, especially the wealthier, land-holding classes. For centuries the agricultural unit—the manor—had been farmed by serfs and freeholders, both paying rent in the form of shares of their produce or by "week-work" that is, by working certain hours or days of the week or in the season, not on their own plots or holdings, but upon the sections of the manor which were farmed under the direction of the bailiff for the lord. But f or a long time the custom had been growing of f arming this part of the manor by hired labor, paid by wages. The very decided inconvenience to the tenants of plowing, sowing, and harvesting on their lord’s land at the very seasons of the year when the same sorts of labor were absolutely necessary on their own holdings, led to a commutation of labor rents into money rents. This was better for them, because it left them free to do their own work when the need was most pressing, and it was far more convenient for the bailiff, the agent of the lord, because it made it possible for him to hire steady labor to do the work under his supervision. By 1325 money payments had practically superseded labor rents. As the bailiff farmed about as much land as all the tenants together, the number of hired labors must have been rather large.
Suddenly, in one year, both laborers and tenants were reduced by the plague by from one-third to two-thirds in number.
The resultant scarcity of labor immediately operated to raise wages, and for many years we find Parliament, largely composed of land-holders, legislating repeatedly to enforce the wage scale which had prevailed before the plague. It should not be thought, however, that the chief factors in the raising of wages were the laborers themselves. We hear that one reason for the passage of the statutes was to prevent landlords from bidding against one another in order to steal away the workmen of others. One result of the rise in wages was to detach from the land the villeins ‘ who would go from one manor to another at the call of higher pay. As a result of this detachment, many were idle during the lighter seasons, and it was undoubtedly from this frequent unemployment that so many laborers joined the roving gangs of "sturdy beggars" of whom we hear so many complaints.
The diminution in income from the manors is reflected in the prologue to Piers the Plowman, where we hear that parsons and parish priests complained to their bishops because of the reduction in their income. Not only were wages high, but much land had to lie idle, and the decrease in production had its effect on prices. This, with the reduction in the income of the landlords, caused great economic distress.
The effect of the pestilence on the clergy was fully as great, and far more unfortunate, than on any other class of the population. Five thousand of the beneficed clergy died in a year, and several times that number of monks and friars. The demand from the parishes resulted in the institution of young, ignorant, and inexperienced clerks. Many were instituted who were not yet in sacred orders. Some parishes were left utterly without priests. The number of candidates for orders was reduced by from one-fifth to one-half, because of the pressure due to decreased population. The friars, who for the most part had their abodes in the most insanitary parts of the towns, were undoubtedly among the hardest hit. The monastic insti-
tutions were hopelessly crippled. They never fully recovered from the breach of their traditional practice and the loosening of their discipline, nor from the reduction in their numbers and in their incomes. It must be believed that the ravages and results of the pestilence were at least partially responsible for the ecclesiastical abuses which led the satirists to their frequent attacks on the clergy.
The fourteenth century in
While medieval institutions were on the decline in England, there began to spring up at the same time a new spirit of national unity, which grew in strength and intensity during the long reign of Edward 111 (1327-77), and was reflected in the
literature of the period, including Wynnere and Wastoure, Piers the
Plowman, and other popular works. Although the rise of nationalism in
As soon as William the Conqueror (1066-87) had
secured the English throne, he began to reward his Norman followers with the
rich lands of the shattered English nobility, and, more gradually, to replace
native churchmen by drawing from the ranks of the Norman clergy. As a result of
this policy there arose an aristocracy, both lay and ecclesiastic, sharply
distinguished in both language and culture from the great mass of the
English-speaking population. -Moreover, a number of the Norman barons held land
on both sides of the channel, and their economic interests thus served to
strengthen the ties between the two countries. The reign of Henry Il (1154-89)
saw the expansion of continental holdings by the English king, and produced
that vast conglomeration of feudal states known to historians as the Angevin
Empire. After Henry’s death, however, the Empire began to disintegrate, and, in
1204, King John lost
Perhaps the most striking development in
of defiance of the French-speaking enemy. The author of Piers the Plowman seems to have known some French, but his choice of English as the vehicle of his poetry speaks for itself, and his anti-French sentiment is quite obvious when, for example, he identifies the devil allegorically as "a proud prikere of Fraunce" (10.8).
The Literary Revival
The return of English to a dominant position led, in the second half of the century, to a literary revival which produced many works of enduring value. For virtually the first time since the end of the Old English period there appeared a number of English authors who asserted considerable independence of continental literary models. Although the French influence was still at work in English poetry, the slavish imitation of French originals became less and less popular, and romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight bore an unmistakable stamp of English authorship. Pious works of religious instruction continued to appear, but a new critical spirit was evident in some of the best literature of the period, including the prose of Wyclif and the poetry of Chaucer.
The universal admiration of Chaucer, justified as it is, has had one unfortunate effect in connection with the study of Middle English literature. It has meant that other works, composed during the same period, have often been neglected. Yet
without this other literature our knowledge of English life and manners in the fourteenth century would of necessity be some what limited, since Chaucer’s outlook, in spite of his broad human sympathies, is fundamentally aristocratic.
Piers the Plowman
Piers the Plowman has provided social
historians with a wealth of material illustrating the life and manners of the
common people in fourteenth-century
Nearly every branch of the secular government comes
in for criticism at one point or another in Piers the Plowman. Lady
Meed, for example, representing bribery, succeeds in corrupting officials at
of the half-acre are "wasters," who refuse to put in an honest
day’s work until hunger compels them to do so (7.286 ff.). -Many supposed
beggars are miraculously "cured," and aid Piers in his labor, only
after being goaded by hunger (7.177 ff.). Traders and craftsmen, operating at
fairs such as the one at
Professional men, especially lawyers, are often
bitterly attacked. Most lawyers refuse to make use of their God-given abilities
on behalf of poor men without first demanding unreasonable payments. You might
as well try to measure the mist on
In spite of the poet’s reverence for the Church, he
is most unsparing in his denunciation of ecclesiastical corruption and the
various abuses of both the secular and regular clergy. He sees the great wealth
of the medieval church as a primary cause of its weaknesses. The greed of
parsons and parish priests draws them from their impoverished flocks in the
country to the rich preferments in
In view of the severity of these attacks on contemporary
society and on the Church, the author of Piers the Plowman has at times in the past been depicted as a sort of revolutionary, guiding his contemporaries on a pilgrimage out of feudal darkness into the coming dawn of modern society. His satire of clerical abuses has been especially emphasized as a revolt against the Church, or at least an inspired prophecy of the coming Reformation. A close reading of the poem will, I think, reveal that there is little justification for either of these views. The poet’s ideas on the proper place of king, lords, and commons in the society of his day are thoroughly orthodox. It is the duty of the king and lords to enforce obedience to God’s law, and our author only asks that the king govern the country in accordance with reason. In spite of the flagrant abuses of the clergy, both secular and regular, the poet is unswerving in his devotion
to the Church and its doctrine. He is extremely critical of the system of indulgences, for example, yet he hastens to add that he believes firmly in the pope’s power to grant pardon (8.150-161).
While the satire of contemporary conditions looms
large in the text of the poem, we must not lose sight of the fact that the
author has a positive message for his generation. In the humble figure of the
plowman, follower of St. Truth, he expresses his faith in the possibility of
ultimate good in the common man, uncorrupted by the evils of wealth and high
position; and from the legalistic tangle of ordinances governing good conduct,
so wide-spread in his day, he extracts the simple rule of doing well, and
offers the promise of eternal life. The utter simplicity and directness of this
message reveal the author’s own simple yet intense Christian faith. In spite of
the evils in the world around him, which be boldly condemns, he presents to us
his vision of an ideal ‘Christian society, governed only by the law of Love,
and nourished by